Few collections of poems—indeed, few literary works in general—intrigue, challenge, tantalize, and reward as do Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Almost all of them love poems, the Sonnets philosophize, celebrate, attack, plead, and express pain, longing, and despair, all in a tone of voice that rarely rises above a reflective murmur, all spoken as if in an inner monologue or dialogue, and all within the tight structure of the English sonnet form.
Individual sonnets have become such a part of present-day culture that, for example, Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”) is a fixture of wedding ceremonies today, and Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”), Sonnet 29 (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”), and Sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”)—to name only a few—are known and quoted in the same way that famous lines and passages are quoted from Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth. Yet it is not just the beauty and power of individual well-known sonnets that tantalize us, but also the story that the sequence as a whole seems to tell about Shakespeare’s love life. The 154 sonnets were published in 1609 with an enigmatic dedication, presumably from the publisher Thomas Thorpe: “To The Onlie Begetter Of These Insuing Sonnets. Mr. W.H.” Attempts to identify “Mr. W.H.” have become inevitably entangled with the narrative that insists on emerging whenever one reads the Sonnets sequentially as they are ordered in the 1609 Quarto.
The narrative goes something like this: The poet (i.e., William Shakespeare) begins with a set of 17 sonnets advising a beautiful young man (seemingly an aristocrat, perhaps “Mr. W.H.” himself) to marry and produce a child in the interest of preserving the family name and property but even more in the interest of reproducing the young man’s remarkable beauty in his offspring. These poems of advice modulate into a set of sonnets which urge the poet’s love for the young man and which claim that the young man’s beauty will be preserved in the very poems that we are now reading. This second set of sonnets (Sonnets 18–126), which in the supposed narrative celebrate the poet’s love for the young man, includes clusters of poems that seem to tell of such specific events as the young man’s mistreatment of the poet, the young man’s theft of the poet’s mistress, the appearance of “rival poets” who celebrate the young man and gain his favor, the poet’s separation from the young man through travel or through the young man’s indifference, and the poet’s infidelity to the young man. After this set of 109 poems, the Sonnets concludes with a third set of 28 sonnets to or about a woman who is presented as dark and treacherous and with whom the poet is sexually obsessed. Several of these sonnets seem also to involve the beautiful young man, who is, according to the Sonnets’ narrative, also enthralled by the “dark lady.”
The power of the narrative sketched above is so strong that counterevidence putting in doubt its validity seems to matter very little. Most critics and editors agree, for example, that it is only in specific clusters that the sonnets are actually linked, and that close attention to the sequence reveals the collection to be more an anthology of poems written perhaps over many years and perhaps to or about different men and women. Most are also aware that only about 25 of the 154 sonnets specify the sex of the beloved, and that in the century following the Sonnets’ publication, readers who copied individual sonnets into their manuscript collections gave them titles that show, for example, that sonnets such as Sonnet 2 were seen as carpe diem (“seize the day”) poems addressed “To one that would die a maid.” Such facts, such recognitions, nevertheless, lose out to the narrative pull exerted by the 1609 collection. The complex and intriguing persona of the poet created by the language of the Sonnets, the pattern of emotions so powerfully sustained through the sequence, the sense of the presence of the aristocratic young man and the seductive dark lady—all are so strong that few editors can resist describing the Sonnets apart from their irresistible story. (Our own introduction to the language of the Sonnets, for example, discusses Sonnet 2 as a poem addressed to the beautiful young man, despite the fact that the sex of the poem’s recipient is not specified and despite our awareness that in the seventeenth century, this extremely popular poem was represented consistently as being written to a young woman.) Individually and as a sequence, these poems remain more powerful than the mere mortals who read or study or edit them.
For a very helpful exploration of the Sonnets as they are read today, we invite you to read “A Modern Perspective” written by Professor Lynne Magnusson of the University of Toronto.